Deborah Thompson and Kourtni Jackson established Montessori By The Sea in the year 2000 to provide a Montessori education for their own children, and in response to the demand from parents for more local opportunities for Montessori education.
The school, located on Prospect Point Road, was the first in the Cayman Islands to offer Montessori education at the Elementary level. Montessori By The Sea recently finished a school year of celebrations to mark its 20th Anniversary.
In May, Montessori By The Sea became the first public or private primary school in Cayman to receive the highest rating of ‘Excellent’ from the Office of Education Standards. Additionally, it was one of the first schools to earn ‘Excellent’ marks in all individual areas of assessment.
Denise Orosa is the Curriculum and Communications Coordinator at Montessori By The Sea, which has about 140 students ranging in age from 21 months to 12 years.
In the second half of this interview, they talk about achieving the school’s rating of ‘Excellent’, plans going forward, and misconceptions about Montessori education.
In the first half, Thompson and Orosa discussed the school’s founding and experience this school year following the COVID-19 lockdown.
— Can you talk about the recent inspection where your school got all ‘Excellent’ ratings, and how you improved on what was already a ‘Good’ score?
OROSA: We took all the feedback from last time and from the moment we got it, we started thinking, “OK, what are the areas that we feel that we definitely have to improve on and what does that mean? What changes are necessary for that to happen?”
‘Assessment’ was a big focus because we had noticed that almost all the schools had received a ‘Satisfactory’ in that area as of 2019.
THOMPSON: So, we wanted to ensure that we clarified our assessment practices with the OES team because we weren’t sure how strongly those came across in the last inspection.
It was basically scrutinising and tearing apart the school, its practices, everything, in terms of the framework that the inspection body would be using— but also, whilst doing that, we made the decision that we aren’t going to compromise on what we value and what we feel is important.
In this inspection cycle we wanted the inspection team to have a really good sense of what we were all about, how we did things and why we did things the way we did.
I think the last time, everybody was a little unsure about speaking to and approaching an inspector, but this time around we wanted to ensure that they understood what they were seeing as our system is not a traditional one. If they’re looking at a group of children, they might not understand that they could be seeing a 5-year-old and a 3-year-old both doing an activity, and maybe the 5-year-old looks small and the 3-year-old looks big — someone might assume that they are the same age and draw conclusions without understanding the age gap.
We created a binder that emphasizes what we thought was important, the things that they should look for when they come in, making it clear and making sure that we had examples of everything that we had been questioned on, examples of assessment or the things we do.
OROSA: Like Miss Debbie was saying, we did look at all the different recommendations and we made decisions on how to address them, but always in a way that was consistent with our ethos for the school. I think that is a really important point to make.
Not that this came up often, but if there were cases where maybe there were contradictions, we would put our school’s philosophy first.
I think the second effort did have to do with communicating Montessori practices and principles very proactively and making an effort to explain it. I think sometimes we, as Montessori educators, take it for granted that other educators understand what’s happening, or that it’s clear what’s happening, but it does help when we proactively explain the process or the different factors that go into a Montessori learning environment.
The effort that was put forward by the teachers and the administrative team into communicating Montessori practices and principles in a way that everyone could understand, that really helped, and it did make a difference. I think the inspection team came away with a clear understanding of the school as a whole this time around, compared to the last inspection.
Part of the challenge, too, is that ultimately, we are a Montessori school being evaluated using a traditional framework. That was something we took into account in our documentation. How do we present this information and translate it in a way that inspectors from a variety of educational backgrounds — having said that, primarily traditional backgrounds — will understand and will be able to say, “OK, this is how they do it. I see it. I get it.” There was a lot of effort put into that.
THOMPSON: Also, I think that our parents really wanted us to do well. Our parents were very supportive, and they were also trying to make sure that their children knew what was happening and its importance. The children are always fantastic.
OROSA: In most Montessori schools, I’d say classroom observation is a common thing. Besides teachers observing, we invite parents to come in and observe in the classroom.
I’m not sure if that’s a traditional practice that’s commonly done in other schools. In Montessori schools, the children are accustomed to having adult observers, literally just watching them work.
It kind of works in their favour come inspection time because they aren’t afraid to explain what they’re doing, or they don’t necessarily feel shy, because they’re used to it. I think that helps, but that was the case even in the first inspection.
THOMPSON: For sure. Our children were going up and were actually questioning the inspectors as well, which was nice.
OROSA: I really appreciated the time the inspection team took during this last inspection. I felt they spent a lot of time in all of the classrooms, and I think that made a huge difference, too, because when you’re staying in a learning environment for an extended period of time, you end up getting to see certain arcs.
Let’s say you’re observing one particular child going from choosing a piece of work, completing that work, sharing it with someone, putting it back. I think you end up seeing a lot more. I really appreciated how much time the inspectors took in all of the classrooms.
THOMPSON: And they consciously made that decision. When children in a classroom are presented with material it follows a process – first they are presented with it, then working on it and returning it to the shelf, even at the younger years. So the inspection team did make sure they were getting to see the whole thing in action.
OROSA: We’re not criticising the inspection team before. We’re just saying it was noticeable because I was in the classroom a lot as a teacher in the first one, and I’d say they spent a lot more time in the classrooms this time around.
THOMPSON: I would assume they did this in all the schools and not just ours. It’s almost as though they went in with the mindset that they were going to walk away with a true sense of what this school is about because every school has its own flavour, if you will. Based on what the school is about, what does it mean for the teaching and the learning that takes place, and the experience of the children, and I feel like that’s what the inspectors intended to do.
— So how did it feel when you got the all ‘Excellent’ inspection results back?
OROSA: We were so happy because you can imagine at the end of this year, when we received our notice of inspection, it was a bit stressful … Oh, no, here we go …
THOMPSON: There’s a lot of documentation and preparation that goes into it. As a Montessori school, we wanted to make sure that they had all the evidence of how things are working here and how it correlates to their framework.
It’s a good exercise though. Inspections, I think, are stressful no matter what, but it is a good opportunity for a school to reflect and say, “OK, what are some things that we can improve on and do differently?”.
As a school you are never going to ‘arrive’. You’re never going to say, “Great. I’ve gotten here.” We may have gotten an ‘Excellent’; it doesn’t mean we’ve arrived. We haven’t.
The school keeps changing. The children keep changing. The needs of the community change. The staff changes. It’s quite dynamic.
In our children we want to create lifelong learners, and that’s the same idea that we have for the school. This is a school that wants to improve throughout its life.
We’re not going to ever say, “Great. I managed to do that. Check. It is done.” No, you can’t because next year is not going to look like last year. You’re going to have new children. Classroom dynamics are going to be different.
It’s important that we understand what our core values are, and that we’re holding true to those, while we’re being flexible to the changing dynamics of our classroom and our school. That’s the best way that I can express how we think about it.
OROSA: Reflecting on the inspection process, there were some nice things that they noticed, that I’d say is a testament to the fact that they really did understand what we’re about.
I really liked that they mentioned things like we have a 3-year cycle in our programmes, that they put it in their own words and see the value of having 3 different age groups in one programme and to understand how it benefits the children socially, how it benefits them intellectually. The younger children end up being inspired by the older children, and the older children get leadership opportunities.
For the inspectors to observe that and articulate it in their report, to me was heartening in terms of their views as educators.
THOMPSON: It was something that stood out for them, which is something that sometimes we can take for granted.
OROSA: Something that’s key to Montessori education is having the mixed age groups in the environment. We were really happy that they acknowledged those things as strengths because those aren’t necessarily traditionally acknowledged as strengths, so to speak.
THOMPSON: They also noted the cross-curricular links and the real-world application of learning. That was nice for us, too, because yes, we may have times when we have lessons, but it’s never about “This is your English period or your Math period” … other than certain specialty subjects which we do have set periods for.
But it’s always about the flow and the connections, and because our curriculum is a spiral curriculum, it is about revisiting ideas. So, I think that those were all things that they noticed and highlighted through their own observations.
Really, observation as a method of assessment is important because as the inspection team is observing, they see that we are observing the children, have discussions with them and allow the opportunity for student-teacher meetings to talk about what they’re doing and their plans.
OROSA: Observation was key because, talking about ‘assessment’, that was something we were kind of criticised about, that we got a ‘Satisfactory’ rating in during the 2019 inspection.
When we were assessing our own practices, this was part of it, “Do we compromise on that?” Because in Montessori education, the teacher’s observation is the primary tool of assessment. You spend the majority of your time as a teacher watching the children and responding to their needs as they’re working.
I do feel quite proud as a school that we stood firm on that practice because that really is the backbone of all of our assessment methods. Yes, we employ other things as well. Yes, our elementary children for example do undergo standardised testing, but those are all secondary and they all are meant to support the teacher’s primary observation of the child. I feel like we did emphasise that and didn’t change that practice in any way. We held firm on it.
— So it was more about explaining to the inspectors more specifically about the methods you had in place, rather than changing the methods for the inspectors?
THOMPSON: We were able to do that. In the binder that Denise worked so tirelessly on, we were able to explain why certain things were important and what that looks like — providing the evidence.
For any inspection you have got to be prepared to give evidence about whatever it is you’re saying. It can’t just be a claim because where is the proof of your claim?
— What challenges is the school facing, or what areas of improvement have you identified?
THOMPSON: We want to be cautious that we don’t become complacent because we don’t want that feeling of, well, so we got that and we’re here. No. ‘Excellent’ doesn’t mean ‘Perfect’, just like ‘Weak’ doesn’t mean everything’s garbage.
We need to be mindful of that, and for us that means continuing to analyse what we’ve learnt from this year. One of the things that’s stood out this year is making sure that we’re doing what we can to help the children be more resilient.
Another is we just started with software called Transparent Classroom in January 2020, but the pandemic interrupted that. So we’re expanding on what that software can offer. It’s going to help teachers administratively and help us with tracking and monitoring the children in a variety of ways, including their progress.
OROSA: I think there are lots of areas for improvement. For example, every year we go through a ‘reflections’ meeting as a whole school, where we go through all of the things that we feel went well as an educational community and the things we need to improve on.
THOMPSON: The administration takes a step back and staff are free to discuss, say, write whatever they want to write down so that we can take a look at it.
OROSA: They’re all kind of little niggly things. On the whole, as a school we always want to make sure that our educational programmes are respecting and responding to the children and families we serve.
I know that seems really broad but it’s genuine. Every year presents new challenges. Children have different needs every year. Families have different needs every year.
As a school community we always strive to respond to those different needs in our community. Even our school family community changes quite noticeably every few years.
THOMPSON: And remember what’s happening in the world and the impact it has. We need to make sure we stay true to our ethos and our values because that is really important. As a school you are trying to juggle the needs of so many stakeholders, whether it’s parents or children, and for us it’s always child first. That’s basically our motto. Child first and then everything else from there.
— What are some plans or projects that you are working on going forward?
OROSA: Looking toward next year, it will be nice to start a fresh new school year, hopefully normally. I know everything can change, but I’m really looking forward to our school community being able to do all the nice community things all together that maybe we weren’t able to in the first term of last year.
THOMPSON: This past year was our 20th school year. We had 20 different projects, or little events, that happened throughout the year. Then we had a big gala on June 5.
OROSA: That was nice because, as Debbie had talked about the initial core group of families, a lot of them were there at the gala. It was so sweet to listen to them talk about how they would drive by the school while it was being built saying, “Are you sure that the school’s going to be open in September?”
THOMPSON: When we were opening, we had nothing. There was nothing. We had parents come buy and pay their fees in our work shed.
OROSA: To see so many children from that very first class to be there as adults, that was so wonderful. Actually Debbie’s son Nico was the one hosting the gala. That was really special this year.
This next school year, all the Montessori schools are coming together. We’re hosting a Montessori conference for the 5 Montessori schools on island. It’s something new.
We’re going to gather as a Montessori community, and I think it’s very exciting. That will be October 15 and all the schools are participating, so we’re really pleased about that.
— Are there any misconceptions about the school or Montessori education that you’d like to address?
OROSA: For a lot of people, there’s definitely a strong association between Montessori education and early childhood education. Sometimes people aren’t aware Montessori education can be extended to elementary and even beyond …
THOMPSON: … There’s adolescent training, there’s all sorts of things.
OROSA: We’re very fortunate to be able to say our school does have a quite good reputation on the island in terms of our elementary programme, but I think the misconception does still exist.
THOMPSON: Also there is this idea that because Montessori has hands-on materials that if your child has special needs, this is where you want them.
We do have children with additional learning needs in our community, but that is not the purpose of the materials. The purpose of the materials is to help all children grasp a concept and show it.
OROSA: Some people have the misconception that using concrete or manipulative materials is remedial in nature, to help children who are not getting the content.
That is a misconception. The materials are there for anyone. Why wouldn’t you want to establish concepts with real experiences, with materials? That’s what makes it so powerful. That’s why we have children that understand the concept of pi. Because they had to do it concretely, and that’s why the idea is so clear to them, as opposed to just memorising that pi is 3.14 …
It helps children move from the concrete to the abstract. Having said that, I see there’s a lot of overlap now between certain principles in Montessori and ‘best practice’ in mainstream education.
THOMPSON: Another misconception I hear sometimes — and this is one I heard from my mom when we were starting the school: “Isn’t Montessori the one where the children are just allowed to do whatever they want to do?” … “No, Mom. It’s actually not.”
There’s freedom. But it is freedom within limits, and the environment is put together so carefully by the teachers based on the needs of the children, so that the children are almost guided into the choices we know that they need to make.
In Montessori they talk a lot about ‘following the child’, but that doesn’t mean if the child wants to go running outside when they ought to be working, that you say, “Oh well, I guess the child has a need for that”.
That’s not what it means. ‘Follow the child’ might mean, “This child needs to learn some self-control. That’s how we’re going to follow this child.”